A 64-year-old long-haul truck driver and a 28-year-old business consultant are battling for the Democratic nomination to go up against Republican incumbent Mark Walker in the 6th Congressional District in November.
One week after 17 students and staff died in a mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., Republican Mark Walker filed for re-election for North Carolina’s 6th Congressional District, reiterating a 10-point conservative pledge from his first election in 2014 that includes “protect[ing] our Second Amendment freedoms.”
Both of the Democratic candidates vying for a shot to take on Walker in the November general election are taking a decidedly different tack on gun issues.
“I don’t believe there are that many people, even in the 6th District, that have semi-automatic rifles that want to convert them to automatic rifles,” Gerald Wong said. “They’re worried about their pistols, maybe even their bows and arrows. There’s no need to get this bent out of shape. The military’s not gonna come and overthrow us. There’s no zombie apocalypse. I’m sure if there is, the government will open up the armories so we get firearms.”
Wong, who said he owns a pistol that he rarely uses, favors a ban on accessories like bump stocks and imposing a surcharge on ammunition and weapons that would pay for a fund to compensate victims of gun violence.
Ryan Watts, Wong’s opponent in the May 8 primary, is also unabashed in his call for gun reform.
“I’m a gun owner; I support the Second Amendment; I passed the concealed-carry class,” Watts said. “I don’t know of many, if any, Democrats that are saying, ‘We want to take guns away.’ That is a trumped-up argument. There is a vast agreement across the country for commonsense gun control, with 94 percent of people indicating they support universal background checks and closing the gun-show loophole. I’m talking about making sure dangerous people bring a knife to your gunfight, making sure weapons that are purchased legally don’t have the high-capacity magazines, bump stocks and military-grade silencers. I do not think we should be selling weapons of war. I support making those illegal. That is not the least risky thing to say.”
Aside from their stance on gun control, the two Democratic candidates are vastly different: Wong, a 64-year-old long-haul trucker from Greensboro, wears tattoos of a tiger and dragon down the length of his forearms and an orange safety vest announcing his congressional campaign in black lettering. Watts, a 28-year-old business consultant from Burlington, favors three-piece suits. Wong is prone to sardonic quips, while Watts brings a more polished, earnest style of persuasive rhetoric.
Watts proudly identifies himself as a fourth-generation North Carolinian in a campaign video. Wong relocated to North Carolina from Washington state after meeting the woman who is now his wife on Match.com. Before taking up trucking, Wong held a string of colorful blue-collar jobs, including a brief stint as a DJ in Arizona, picking apples and pulling beets with Mexican migrant workers in the Pacific Northwest and working in a fish cannery with Filipino migrants in Alaska.
Both candidates cite the grassroots energy behind the Women’s March as an inspiration, and pledge to close the wage gap while protecting reproductive freedom, with Wong adding the Movement for Black Lives as a guidestar. But in temperament the two candidates are in different ballparks. Watts talks in his campaign video about bringing “a spirit of collaboration back to Washington,” and says he would have to temper expectations from the Women’s March if he won in 2018, while potentially modulating to a bolder vision if a Democrat takes the White House in 2020.
“We can show the millennials that their home should be in the Democratic Party,” Watts said. “We should be the party that’s fiscally responsible, that cares for the many and not the few, that fights for education, healthcare and the only planet we have. Millennials are the most inclusive generation in history. Which party is about inclusion? I don’t think there’s any question but that it’s the Democratic Party.”
Wong, who favors single-payer healthcare, describes himself as an “unabashed progressive, a Roosevelt Democrat, a Bernie Sanders progressive. When you go into negotiations, I’m more resistant to being moved into the center than a moderate is.”
The 6th Congressional District — covering a northern tier of three counties along the Virginia border, a portion of the Interstate 85/40 corridor from Mebane to the east Greensboro, and Randolph, Chatham and Lee counties to the south — represents a steep climb for a Democratic candidate. Walker won the 2016 election by 18.5 points over Democratic challenger Pete Glidewell. In comparison, the most competitive Republican-leaning district — the 13th — was carried by Ted Budd by 12.2 points. At the other end of the spectrum, Republican Walter Jones won the 3rd District by 34.4 points. As the incumbent in the 6th District, Walker sits on a $371,239 campaign war chest, according to his most recent filing with the federal Election Commission.
Receipts for the two Democrats in the race are negligible, with Watts reporting a total of $64,322. Wong said he isn’t accepting contributions until after the primary. He said he’s spent slightly less than $5,000 — the reporting threshold — out of pocket.
“We feel good about our chances of winning the primary,” Watts said. “We’re certainly the most prepared candidate and campaign. I think the district will ultimately agree. I respect the other guy running. I think we’re the only candidate that can beat Mark Walker in a blue-wave year.”
Wong said he finds the expectation that before a candidate is even considered viable they must raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to be “grotesque.” He’s found it challenging to balance his work responsibilities with attending campaign events, but he says if he wasn’t serious he wouldn’t have ponied up the $1,700 filing fee.
“I’m spending my retirement money — my motorcycle fund,” he said.
His wife, who joined him for an interview, quipped, “So he’s really serious.”
Both candidates, for different reasons, believe they have a shot at unseating Walker.
“It traditionally has been a Republican district,” Watts said. “There are a lot of unaffiliated voters. If Democrats show up and vote in a blue-moon election, we’ll win. If Democrats are enthusiastic about voting, and Republicans aren’t, and unaffiliated voters look around and say, ‘What in the world is going on?’ they’ll come over and vote Democrat.”
Wong also believes he could have a cross-party appeal.
“I’m the kind of Democrat that moderate Republicans see as a success story,” he said. “I think I’m the kind of Democrat that could get Republican votes. If you’re looking for someone who’s pulled himself up by the bootstraps, I’m that person.”